Bridget Minamore: The RSC was right to call out Quentin Letts but theatre can still do better
Colour-blind casting – that is the casting of people of colour in roles that would typically have been played by white actors – is something theatregoers have had to get used to, particularly when it comes to the large ensembles of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe.
Enter Quentin Letts. Reviewing the RSC’s The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, the critic questioned whether “the RSC’s clunking approach to politically correct casting has again weakened its stage product”. The RSC subsequently took the much-welcomed step of denouncing Letts’ “blatantly racist attitude” and “ugly and prejudiced commentary”.
It is not racist for Letts to dislike the RSC’s production or to believe black actor Leo Wringer has been miscast in his role; both are opinions as opposed to fact.
The issue is over asking “was Mr Wringer cast because he was black?”. Reducing the casting of an actor with decades of stage experience to a box-ticking exercise is absurd. Especially as the idea that a plethora of non-white actors are being cast solely because of their race is clearly not true.
With very few exceptions, so-called ‘colour-blind casting’ mostly means one or two non-white actors in a large white cast. The few times a non-white actor takes on a classic lead role on a major stage, they are loudly announced as ‘the first X actor to do so’.
Perhaps Letts would have more to complain about if we weren’t still in an age of firsts when it comes to diversity on stage.
Like the people who are given the opportunity to write plays, produce plays and critique plays, acting roles in British theatre are overwhelmingly written with white (and middle-class) characters as default.
While many a scheme aims to tackle this bias in new writing – the success of this is, admittedly, debatable – a wealth of ‘old writing’ exists, and is continually produced. Colour-blind casting, tokenistic or not, gives non-white actors the chance to go up for many of the same roles as their white contemporaries.
Saying all this, colour-blind casting is not a complete solution to theatre’s diversity woes. Surely we can do better? Colour-blind (and gender-blind) casting is one thing, but what about diversity on stage that is acknowledged as opposed to ignored?
For some Shakespearean roles, it is said, the actors’ race is significant; Othello should be the only black person in his titular play. Or should he?
Theatre is a living art form, something that adapts each time. Why can’t race help this? As an example, I’ve long wanted to see a production of Othello where the Moor of Venice was a darker skinned black man, and Iago a lighter skinned person of colour. What happens to the dynamic between the two rivals when it is colourism and self-hatred that drives Iago’s racist anger?
We’ve seen that productions can succeed at this. Most recently, the RSC’s version of Hamlet had an almost exclusively black cast and was set in a Wakandan-style fictional-African mashup.
The casting choice was not blind, but deliberate, and brought something new to the production. Colour-blind casting might be better than sticking with an all-white status quo, but in the future I have to hope we move to a place where the race of diverse casts is seen as something to notice rather than ignore.